A history of friendship, by mail

CorrespondentJanuary 5, 2013 

Sometime this week or next, H.G. Jones will take a few minutes to type a note to an old friend. He will tuck it inside a worn and stained birthday card, put it in the mail, and then wait for it to reappear in his mailbox early next year.

When it does, Fannie Memory Mitchell will have added a note of her own, likely a little gibe about how Jones is still older than she, perhaps something more tender-hearted about his health – and a four-decade tradition between the 89-year-old friends will continue.

The two were born exactly two weeks apart in 1924 – he on Jan. 7 and she on Jan. 21. Neither can remember exactly when it began, this exchange of the same card year after year after year. Nor do they recall who first recycled it. What they do know is that the tradition started in the late 1960s, when they had been working together in the state Department of Archives and History for more than a decade, carefully preserving pieces of North Carolina’s past. Jones was Mitchell’s supervisor until he left in 1974 to curate the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The first legible note, in Jones’ handwriting, is dated Jan. 21, 1969. It reads: “My, how your birthdays do pass!” It was taped inside the card on a piece of scrap paper, and remains there as a memento. Until recently, the two were mailing the card and 40-plus years worth of notes – a large package – back and forth. Two years ago, they gave the notes to the state archives; now, they simply mail the card and their recent quips back and forth.

“Originally, our notes were more insulting to one another,” laughed Mitchell, whose friends call her Memory. “We’ve mellowed as we’ve gotten older.”

Last year’s notes demonstrate this evolution.

Mitchell wrote to Jones: “Happy 88th! It’s hard to believe that you are that old and I’m not far behind. After going through my recent health problems I can understand how the health system is going broke. You and I have certainly benefited from it, haven’t we? ... Lots of good wishes for 2012.”

His response:

“Happy Birthday 2012! Hip Hip Hooray! And happy hip (that is, I hope you have recovered from the operation and are now able to run up to Five Points and back without after affects (sic). Just think, all this came about by you being a champion tennis player at Meredith College decades ago. Do you still have your championship trophy?”

Jones was referring to a longstanding joke in Mitchell’s family. Required to take a physical education course as a Meredith undergrad, Mitchell chose tennis. To this day, she claims to be the worst tennis player ever to step onto a court.

Now that the former colleagues are are well into their 80s, they don’t see each other often, though Jones, who lives in Pittsboro,was able to make a holiday luncheon at Mitchell’s home in Raleigh just before Christmas. Their relationship was always largely professional, though when they first met and were both single, they occasionally hosted dinners together.

The light-hearted banter on the card makes clear that their friendship over the years went beyond their love of preserving artifacts to educate Tar Heels about the state’s past.

When Mitchell gave birth to twin boys at age 41, the comments from Jones began to focus on her new family life, still teasing her but with obvious delight in her bundles of joy.

When Jones left the state archives for UNC, Mitchell gave him a hard time about his absence, but it is clear that she both missed him and was proud of him.

When they decided to entrust the original birthday greetings to the State Archives of North Carolina, they added a note to offer context for prosperity’s sake.

“Both of us exhibited stinginess and obstinacy by refusing to purchase a new card,” Jones wrote. “In retrospect, both have been rather shortsighted because by the turn of the (21st) century the cost of postage for mailing the original card with its dozens of messages exceeded the cost of a new card each year. But then, pride exceeds brilliance, and neither of us dare back down on the issue of spending money for a new card.”

Fran Tracy-Walls is the private manuscripts archivist who catalogued the tradition. She delights in the good-natured ribbing between the two, but says its value goes beyond the preservation of casual banter.

Not only have the two faithfully chronicled where they were personally and professionally over the years, but also what a relationship like theirs – one that started professionally but has outlived many of their friends and family – looks like. But one aspect of the exchange seems surprisingly out of character.

“I find it amusing, though significant, that these two archives and history professionals wrote their first messages on undated scraps of paper,” she said.

“Some were secured to the card with adhesive tape, a preservation nightmare. As time passed they seemed to become conscious of the potential interest their messages might hold for posterity.”

It is clear, she said, that the two “had great respect for one another” and a growing awareness that they might outlive their family and friends.

“The content of the messages ... shows how the human side surfaces and so richly supplements public records,” Tracy-Walls said.

The friends already have a plan for the January when one of them will not have the other to send the card to. Everything within the worn memento is to go to the state archives. Mitchell’s executor has been instructed where to find the card and to whom to send it hould she pass first and the card be in her possession.

But for now, the two are gearing up for another year of birthday banter.

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